Monday, March 11, 2013

Discerning the Child's Needs

Beezy is sick and has been running a fever since Saturday. Thankfully we are going to the doctor this afternoon. It has got me to thinking about how different I can be toward my child when her needs are so clear:  cold medicine, herbal tea, saline nasal spray, tissues, good books to read to her, movies to watch, Tylenol, and lots of tender loving care. When she is ill I am gentler, more aware of what I need to do to help her.

More often I think adults react to children without taking a moment to be mindful of their underlying needs. Our culture focuses more on disciplining behaviors that are determined (often arbitrarily) to be undesirable. When a child is throwing a tantrum, or hitting someone, or running through the house, the automatic response is to punish the behavior, to scold (and therefore humiliate) the offender. My experience with Al-Anon, a support group for friends and family members of alcoholics, gives me valuable insight and a different response. This is the practice of the acronym HALT, which originated in AA. If you are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, you are to halt what you are doing and take care of that need in a healthy way, therefore lessening the chance that you will drink (or if you are the loved one of the alcoholic, before it can manifest in some other self-destructive behavior).

In a similar way, when a child is out of sorts we adults need to HALT for him. Is the child hungry, angry, lonely or tired? When Beezy was much younger, she would become overstimulated in large groups of people. Her dad and I could sense when this was happening, and we knew it was time to leave the party, street fair, or whatever crowded place we were in before she had a meltdown. Other hidden needs might be to feel included, to be paid attention to, to have some one-on-one time, to go outside and release some energy, to be comforted, to be accepted. There is always a need underlying the behavior, and the primary goal ought to be to meet that need, not to simply stop the behavior (or worse, punish the child for it). When the needs of children are discerned, the appropriate action can then be determined, which may indeed include a natural consequence such as a time out, having a toy or privilege removed, or making an apology. The adults in the situation may very well be contributing to the unacceptable behavior, and we need to take responsibility for our part in the problem. Is our own hunger, anger, loneliness, or sleep deprivation, or other problems such as grief and depression, coloring our view of the child?

There is also the issue of expectations. Not everyone has the same ideas regarding what is or is not acceptable behavior, or about what the natural consequences should be. For example, I imagine that there could be a large gap between how an unschooling parent sees and handles behavior issues, and how more traditionally minded people view them. Generation gaps, religious beliefs, and pop psychology are other possible influences. This is why observation of children is so important. This is why the adult needs to HALT before reacting to a child, before judging and making assumptions. Lording over children is disrespectful toward them. It is failing to see Christ in the child, and to me that is unacceptable behavior.

When I was in my Montessori teacher training, we actually had classes specifically on how to observe the child. We even took a field trip to the zoo to document in writing the actions of the animals in minutest detail. We did not draw conclusions; we just objectively watched and recorded what we saw. It requires more of the adult to be an intent observer, to objectively evaluate what is really going on with a child and to adequately meet her underlying needs. It is easier to blame the child, or if he isn't yours, to blame his parents or his teachers. They may be contributing to the issue, but when has blame ever solved a problem?

What I hope to gain from pursuing Catholic unschooling is a better relationship with my child; in fact, I think all of the relationships in my home will benefit from this approach to learning and life. When I become impatient or frustrated or distracted, I want to remind myself to be present in the moment, to really see my child as the amazing person and beautiful soul that she is. I want to extend the gentleness to her that I do when she is sick, at all other times.


  1. Rita,

    You said, "I think all of the relationships in my home will benefit from this approach to learning and life." They will! The unschooling lifestyle is gentle and takes in the needs of children. It was because our relationships were deteriorating, I knew we had to find something better. We arrived at uschooling. Yes, our children are learning so much, but the biggest benefit is our improved relationships with each other. The unschooling lifestyle is so very special. It's hard to describe. Maybe it needs to be experienced.

    I hope your daughter feels better soon!

  2. Thanks Sue! She is on antibiotics and is feeling better. It does seem hard to describe what unschooling is all about, and it seems to be a large, umbrella label. I think each family has to define what it means to them. I am looking forward to everyone being healthy and spring finally coming so we can really pursue this new lifestyle!


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